Perseverance – Writing Lessons from the Olympics
(Note: A 2020 updated version of this post can be found on Julie's website at http://www.julieeshbaugh.com/forwriters/2020/8/25/perseverance-for-writers)
The Olympics are here! I’ve been watching a lot of the events on television, and no matter which sport I’m watching—cycling, gymnastics, swimming—I’m amazed at the level of accomplishment I see in these athletes.
How did these individuals reach this level? How did they surpass everyone else in their field?
Some of it is raw talent. But talent alone is not what divides Olympians from other athletes. You could make an argument for a lot of different factors—supportive families, strong coaching, hours of practice. All those things contribute to the making of an Olympic athlete. In this post, I want to talk about the factor that is arguably the most important of all—perseverance.
Whether or not an athlete continues in the face of fear and adversity can make or break their chances of accomplishing their dreams.
The same can be said of writers.
When I was younger, I knew a girl whose entire life was wrapped up in gymnastics. She trained long hours every day. She competed in state and national competitions. She was on her way to the elite level. Her dream was to become an Olympic gymnast.
Until one day, she just quit.
I asked her what had happened that made her leave gymnastics. Her answer surprised me, and I have never forgotten it. She explained that, as you progress up through levels of competition, obviously the difficulty of the moves increases. But it wasn’t that the moves had become too challenging physically; they had become too challenging mentally. She had seen a lot of gymnasts get hurt, and she was frightened. Attempting more difficult moves was just too scary. She had reached a point where she knew she would never progress to the next level, because her fear was stronger than her motivation.
Perseverance is defined as “steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.” (dictionary.com)
Perseverance is as essential to writers as it is to athletes. Whatever your writing dream—to complete a novel, to see your work published, to develop a loyal readership—you won’t get there if you don’t persevere through the tough times.
And don’t be fooled. All writers have tough times. All writers want to give up at some point along the way.
Here are just a few of the times when I have wanted to give up:
When I finished the second chapter and realized it wasn’t half as good as the first.
When I got to the middle and realized I had started the novel at the wrong point in the story and needed to start over.
When I was so tired after working my day job and just wanted to watch TV “like a normal person.”
When I finished the first draft and knew how much work it would take to revise it into the book I knew it could be.
When I finished reading a fantastic book and immediately compared my own writing to it, usually with a declaration something like, “My writing stinks! I will never write as well as (insert name of author here.)”
These are the moments when I am like that gymnast. I know what it will take to reach the next level, and I begin to doubt myself.
Writing takes intense effort and sacrifice. It takes perseverance in the face of fear. It takes perseverance in the face of failure. It takes perseverance in the face of rejection.
So just how does a writer persevere when quitting is oh so tempting?
Here are some tricks that have helped me to keep going:
Write every day. If I’m facing burn-out on a project, I write something else—a poem, a journal entry, a letter—even notes for my next project. If I’m completely burned out, I let myself write just one sentence. (Usually, that sentence leads to many more, but not always!)
If my project is in the doldrums, I go back and read the outline or the opening chapter—something I wrote when I was still in love with it. This helps remind me why I wanted to write this story in the first place.
Talk it out with another writer. Tell your critique partner how you feel. Writer friends can give you the encouragement to keep going.
Remember that there is always another project, and everything is a step in the learning process. A project isn’t a “failure” if you learned from it.
Read up on your favorite authors. Learn about their paths to publication. Chances are there were bumps along the way.
The first event of this summer’s Olympics that I watched was the men’s cycling road race. The winner of that event, 38-year-old Alexander Vinokourov, wouldn’t even have been in that race if he had quit cycling last year as he had originally planned after breaking his femur in the Tour de France. “After so many crashes, returning to cycling was difficult, but I was still hoping for a good result,” Vinokourov said. “My family, my kids, my parents were behind me the whole time. I still have the metal plate in my hip, my femur, so it wasn’t easy. Today, a dream has come true.” (Excerpted from a story by Samuel Petrequin of the Associated Press.)
I hope you are finding the Olympics inspiring! Please share your thoughts in the comments.